In Memoriam: Ernest J. Gaines


Photo credit: Unknown

The Project on the History of Black Writing mourns the passing of Ernest J. Gaines. Gaines died from cardiac arrest in his Louisiana home on Tuesday. He was 86. Gaines was born the eldest son of sharecroppers and raised on a plantation in Pointe Coupée Parish, Louisiana. The rural South would become a permanent fixture in his writing because it was not only home in the physical sense, but it was the home that nurtured Gaines in Black oral traditions and laid the foundation for his own storytelling to come to life. It was his loyalty to telling tales of Black life in the South that set him apart from his literary contemporaries and cultivated his legacy.  

“I came from a place where people sat around and chewed sugar cane and roasted sweet potatoes and peanuts in the ashes and sat on ditch banks and told tales and sat on porches and went into swamps and went into the fields—that’s where I came from.” (Ernest Gaines, 1985)

(Renovated church on Mr. Gaines’s property in Louisiana; he attended school in this building as a youth.) Photo credit: Jennifer Zdon for The New York Times

Gaines’s award-winning short-stories and novels include: Bloodline: Five Stories (1968), The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (1971), In My Father’s House (1978), A Gathering of Old Men (1983), and A Lesson Before Dying (1993).  In 1974, The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman was adapted into a television movie of the same name and starred Cicely Tyson. The film was broadcast on CBS and won nine Emmy awards. In 1999, A Lesson Before Dying was also adapted for a television film starring Don Cheadle. The film won Emmy awards for Outstanding Made for Television and Outstanding Writing for a Miniseries or a Made for Television Movie.

“Everyone asked me, ‘Who is she based on?’ I’ve never met one Miss Jane Pittman, I’ve met a thousand.” (Ernest Gaines, 2010)

Photo credit: HBW


Like John Donne’s stationary point on a compass, Louisiana held on to Ernest J. Gaines no matter how far away he traveled. That stationary point commanded his imagination until he re-settled, finally, on the soil he called home. Miss Jane Pittman and Grant Wiggins joined a host of other characters who declared that, on 5 November 2019, he could rest in the bosom of his creativity, in the soil that inspired his genius, in the home that now cradles its most famous son. Rest in peace, Dr. Gaines.” –  Dr. Trudier Harris, November. 5, 2019

“Among Southern writers of the 20th century, Ernest Gaines provided rich lessons about craft, integrity, socially responsible uses of imagination, and the paradoxes of morality.  The best tribute is to be located in reading his works and applying the lessons in our daily lives.” – Dr. Jerry W. Ward, Jr.,   November 5, 2019

Photo credit: University of Louisiana-Lafayette


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Author Ernest Gaines, left, with author and folklorist Dr. Trudier Harris, the keynote speaker for the Seventh Annual Gaines Center Lecture Series on Oct. 24. 2019. Photo credit: Tiffany Thomas/Advertiser

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